Winter 2000–2001

Marilyn Monroe and I

Fernando Sampietro, US mass culture, and the Latin American left

Jesse Lerner

Zapatista rebels standing in the dining room of the main house at Finca Liquidámbar in the Ángel Albino Corzo province of Chiapas, 1994. Photo Omar Meneses, La Jornada.

In the fall of 1999, a major retrospective of Andy Warhol’s art filled Mexico’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, the country’s most important art space. Facing the deco-Maya masks by Federico Mariscal that adorn the building, Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper (1966) stared blankly across the building’s marble rotunda. It might well have been a scene out of the late experimental filmmaker and painter Fernando Sampietro’s book-length 1983 poem “Marilyn Monroe y yo” [Marilyn Monroe and I]. In that poem, which is reprinted here, the narrator and the actress wander through a hyper-Mexican landscape crossing paths with the likes of Dali, Warhol, and Duchamp. Together, the Mexican artist and the Hollywood screen goddess attend meetings of the Communist International, grope each other on the stairs of Chichén Itzá’s “observatory,” and struggle to overcome the language barrier that separates them. More than simply a paean to frustrated male desire, the poem functions as an allegory of the conflicted relationship between US mass culture and a generation of avant-garde artists of the Latin American left, and anticipates much of contemporary Mexican culture.

A marginal figure within a marginal cinema, with “Marilyn Monroe y yo,” Sampietro emerges from obscurity with a witty tale of globalization and longing in the postmodern age. Earlier generations of Latin American leftists did not share Sampietro’s fascination with the goddesses of Hollywood’s Olympus. The Frankfurt School’s hostility to the culture industry combined with cultural nationalism to make for a damning perspective on this sort of import. Emerging from the decade-long civil war that was the Mexican Revolution, the prevailing leftist perspective frankly admired the technological accomplishments of the industrial north, but viewed the cultural context that produced such great wealth with more caution. The aesthetic project emerging from the Revolution promised to reconcile the mechanization of mass production with the cultural traditions of indigenous America. For example, in his grand mural for the 1940 Golden Gate International Exhibition in San Francisco, Pan American Unity, also known as Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and South of This Continent, Diego Rivera painted a steel press from an auto assembly plant merging seamlessly with a stone idol of the Aztec deity Coatlicue. The culture of the industrial age is merged with an older, stronger Pre-Columbian tradition, creating a new synthesis. The technology of the capitalist oppressors is salvaged and reoriented toward worthier goals, but their arts go into the dustbin of history.

In fact, the culture of the North is often depicted as bearing reactionary values antithetical to the revolutionary process. Consider Josep Renau’s embittered series of collages entitled “The American Way of Life.” A Spanish Communist exiled in Mexico, Renau gathered images from Life and Fortune magazines, which he would then reassemble into a damning critique of capitalism’s inner mechanisms. Fragments lifted from the free market’s propaganda machine are deployed to critique the system that created them. In “The American Way of Life,” Marilyn appears juxtaposed with piles of decaying corpses of war dead, capitalists shitting gold coins, nuclear weapons, and the sanitized, sunny images of fifties American advertisements. Owing more than a little to photocollagist John Heartfield, whose work for AIZ first awakened Renau’s interest in collage, “The American Way of Life” redirects the seductive gloss of the original ads toward ends that are diametrically opposed to it. Renau’s attitude toward Marilyn could not contrast more dramatically with Sampietro’s. Her close-up in the photocollage Hollywood Moloch makes it clear that for Renau she is unequivocally part of the bread and circuses designed to distract the proletariat from the contradictions of capitalism. Sampietro’s crude animations, also employing appropriated images taken from mass circulation periodicals, send Marilyn careening through scenes from the Cuban Revolution and Coca-Cola ads, creating juxtapositions reminiscent of those in his poem.

However, in the generation separating Renau and Sampietro, the meaning of US pop culture for the youth of the Latin American middle-class changed dramatically. Imported styles and systems of signification became the preferred language of rebellion. The prime example of this is, of course, rock and roll, so recurrent in Sampietro’s poem, an import that was nationalized at the level of both consumption and local production. Contrary to the criticisms of more orthodox Marxists, this imported style represents not the triumph of cultural imperialism but a reflection of youthful dissatisfaction with a repressive state, especially in the aftermath of the 1968 government massacre of student demonstrators in Tlatelolco Square. The discourse of cultural imperialism only served to reinscribe the boundaries of the nation-state in its moment of gravest crisis. Sampietro’s poetry begs for an understanding of culture as process, in which signifiers can change meanings in anarchic, unpredictable ways. Rather than an annihilation of the local in the face of the bombardment of imports, the foreign becomes indigenous in the moment of consumption. Any lingering sense of an authentic point of origin is lost.

Sampietro’s films similarly exemplify a relationship to imported mass culture more ambivalent and complex than that of Renau and Rivera, one that reveals much about the contradictions negotiated by his generation of small-gauge experimental filmmakers in the 1970s and early 1980s. Known as the superocheros, because of their preference for super-8 film, this part of the national cinema relates less to the contemporaneous nuevo cine mexicano, and its preoccupation with feature-length narratives, than it does to the experimentation going on elsewhere in the visual arts. A part of Sampietro’s interest in cinema clearly stems from a Warholian fascination with celebrity. Standing in front of posters of Humphrey Bogart and Charlie Chaplin, he addresses the camera directly in one untitled short, stating: “I want to be an actor, but that’s just a fantasy, a fantasy that I am fulfilling at this very moment.” Just as Warhol could elevate his troubled coterie to celebrity status with the designation “superstar,” Sampietro inserts himself into the inner circles of Hollywood by sheer force of will. In his short, unadorned, nearly structuralist films, he presents himself as a postmodern flâneur wandering through public spaces with a head full of anarchist notions. Though at one point he collaborated with the pioneering conceptualist Felipe Ehremberg on a film performance (which was interrupted by a police arrest), for the most part he worked alone, independent of movements and groups. It is perhaps why today, years after Sampietro’s death, many of his films read as private rituals, defying attempts to impose meaning on them. His films are filled with ambiguous images: beer bottles that arc into the frame and smash against a wall; long, deadpan takes of national petroleum industry facilities; and Magritte-like allegories of landscape and its representation. “Marilyn Monroe y yo,” however, offers a rich set of clues that reveal much about his preoccupations.

Travel forward in time eleven years after the publication of “Marilyn Monroe y yo,” to a Chiapas coffee plantation not far from the Chamula, Tzeltal, and Tzotzil villages where Sampietro obsessively filmed all the Coke and Pepsi signs. In a 1994 photograph by Oscar Meneses, we see four Warhol silk-screened portraits of Marilyn in a revoutionary scenario unimaginable for Sampietro or Renau. Meneses’s documentary image records the take-over of a Chiapaneco coffee plantation owner’s dining room by Zapatista rebels. Here, Pop enters the Mayan world, like the Coca-Cola bottles that so impressed Sampietro in San Cristobal de las Casas. Here, Marilyn becomes a trophy, a symbol of surplus value, expropriated by the landowners and then reclaimed by armed revolutionaries. The silkscreen, like the soft drink or Monroe herself, is once again recast and reinterpreted by active consumers with their own agendas. Perhaps the superficiality of celebrity interests these indigenous socialists less than the staking of a proprietary claim. Marilyn functions as stage prop for the photo-op of media-conscious native revolutionaries. The older model of cultural imperialism is eclipsed by a more dynamic process that refashions cultural content according to specific historical contexts, and Marilyn Monroe is liberated from the dogmatic interpretations offered at the “international meeting of communists” that she attends in the poem. Free at last, she reinvents herself, along with Fernando Sampietro, as a Mexican anarchist.

For an English translation of Fernando Sampietro’s poem “Marilyn Monroe y yo,” see here.

Jesse Lerner is a critic and documentary filmmaker. His documentaries Ruins, Frontierland, and Natives have screened at festivals internationally. He teaches media studies at the Claremont Colleges in California. Lerner is a contributing editor to Cabinet.

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